1915-S Panama-Pacific Octagonal Fifty, MS67
1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific 50 Dollar Octagonal MS67 NGC. This
remarkable fifty dollar Panama-Pacific 1915-S octagonal gold coin
is, unsurprisingly, tied for the finest we have ever offered at
Heritage, as well as tied for the finest certified at NGC and PCGS
combined. NGC shows three other submissions in MS67 (perhaps a
number that includes duplicates), and the finest graded at PCGS are
two in MS66 (3/14).
A Monumental Coin of Remarkable Quality
Tied for Finest Graded
Memento of Two Great American Achievements
While this admirable coin was being shown around among the Heritage cataloging staff, one cataloger remarked, "Who was this struck for, the King of Siam?"
While we will almost certainly never know the exact circumstances of its production, the undoubted fact is that it is a coin of remarkable quality and pristine preservation, certainly a piece that shows many of the characteristics of a specimen coin. It appears to have seen special care taken in both its production and preservation -- a nearly mark-free, essentially perfect survivor of this largest and most impressive gold commemorative issue.
The Panama Canal
A clever, well-known palindrome -- a phrase that reads the same backward and forward -- describes President Theodore Roosevelt: "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama."
The 1915-S Panama-Pacific round and octagonal gold coins are monumental tributes -- as was the American exposition for which they are named -- to the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken by America.
The completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 represented a triumph of American will over the implacable elements, a series of giant hydraulic locks that enabled giant oceangoing vessels to, in effect, climb the Cordillera mountain range of Central America. In his espousal and fierce support of the project, President Roosevelt created a new Central American nation, enabled the rise of America as a world superpower, and presided over innumerable triumphs of engineering, science, medicine -- and the human will.
The Present Coin
The present MS67 NGC octagonal Panama-Pacific fifty dollar must be considered one of the most desirable commemorative coins ever to be produced by the United States. Its net production of only 645 survivors places it as the second-lowest-mintage issue in the entire "classic commemorative series" running from 1892 to 1926. Interestingly, the current NGC population data show four submissions each of the round and octagonal versions in the top grade of MS67. One simply cannot say too much about the impeccable nature of this coin. To mention any of the minuscule marks that appear -- only under a loupe! -- would be to overemphasize their importance.
The coloration is among the most attractive we have ever seen on this issue, not yellow-gold but rather an orange-gold with the emphasis more on orange. The surfaces are satiny rather than frosty, and radiate cartwheel luster throughout both sides -- also a feature that we have not seen before on an example of this issue.
The Plan: French Failure
The plan to link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via a Central American waterway had been a dream for hundreds of years, as an alternative to months-long treacherous voyages around South America's Cape Horn.
When gold was discovered in vast quantities in California in the 1840s, it reinforced the need for a shorter, faster way to connect those destinations.
The Panama Canal started out as a colossal failure of a project undertaken first by the French in 1881. The mastermind of the 1869 Egyptian Suez Canal completion, Ferdinand de Lesseps, was put in charge of the Panama Canal project by the French government. It turned our that building canals through arid desert in Egypt and through tropical jungles and mountain ranges in Panama were quite different endeavors. Among de Lesseps' fatal errors was to visit Panama only once, and that during the dry season, when the raging Chagres River was at its tamest.
After years of disastrous floods, mudslides, and thousands of deaths from malaria and other tropical diseases, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique failed in December 1888. More than 100,000 French investors lost their funds with the collapse of the French venture. Ferdinand de Lesseps was at one time known as le Grand Français (the Great Frenchman) to his compatriots, yet he went from being a revered hero in France to narrowly escaping prison, a man essentially driven mad in the last years of his life by the vastness of the colossal failure.
The strategic importance of a water passage through Central America was driven home yet again in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, when the United States was unable to get the battleship Oregon to the Atlantic Ocean without the lengthy journey around Latin America's southern tip.
The Man: President Theodore Roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt, who had served with the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment -- the "Rough Riders" -- during the Spanish-American war, assumed the office of President in September 1901 upon the death of the assassinated President William McKinley.
Shortly afterward, Roosevelt addressed Congress about the need to complete the Panama Canal:
"No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is as of such consequence to the American people."
The Plan: American Success
In 1902 the United States acquired the rights to the French canal land and equipment for a maximum of $40 million. Panama was at that time a province of Colombia, although many of the Panamanian business elite desired independence from Colombia. The United States, via Roosevelt and his envoys, began negotiating to acquire Panama from Colombia. When the negotiations stalled, Roosevelt acted with his typical impetuousness, scheming with Panamanian business leaders for a revolution -- and at the same time bribing Colombian soldiers to lay down their arms. The near-bloodless revolution, abetted by the sudden appearance of an American warship, lasted mere hours. The new nation of Panama was born in November 1903, and the Panama Canal Treaty was signed days later. It would be 11 more years before the Panama Canal was officially completed, however, at a continuing enormous cost of lives and money.
The successful canal completion represented the rise of what has been called the "American century." The Americans succeeded where the French had failed -- disastrously. It was a time of American engineering triumphs: The Transcontinental Railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Panama Canal were all victories against impossible odds, projects whose completion was believed unattainable.
The Panama Canal, at the time called the "13th Labor of Hercules," signified America's rise as a dominant world superpower -- although the world scarcely noticed the actual completion, due to the drumbeats of World War I already echoing in Europe. The combination of notable advances in railroad and hydroelectric engineering, managerial organization, public health and disease control, and the triumph of sheer American determination over implacable Nature put the Panama Canal project on a scale never before seen.
One visitor memorably called the canal "the greatest liberty ever taken with nature."
The Panama-Pacific Exposition
The huge 1915-S Panama-Pacific round and octagonal fifty dollar gold coins were a fitting tribute in their artistry and size to the most immense undertaking of America prior to World Wars I and II, the largest single federal expenditure to date. They commemorated the completion of the Panama Canal and the joining of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an impossible dream hundreds of years in the making. In addition, the siting of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the coining of the various numismatic issues in San Francisco provided an enormous showcase for that city. The beautiful exposition, the last great world's fair, helped the city rise phoenix-like from the ashes, only nine years after the disastrous 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire.
Two and one-half times as large as the High Relief double eagles, the 1915-S Panama-Pacific fifties have assumed high honors in the nearly 100 years since their creation, as among the most-pursued issues in American numismatics. The octagonal variants, as represented by the present MS67 NGC-certified piece, are the single most-memorable issue of all the classic commemorative issues. This is a monumental coin of immense historic and numismatic importance. Census: 4 in 67, 0 finer (3/14).
From The Charles G. Wright Family Collection.(Registry values: P7) (NGC ID# BYLX, PCGS# 7452)
View all of [The Charles G. Wright Family Collection ]
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